Detroit Tigers: The 1979 starting pitching rotation was the start to a title

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 7, 1983: Pitcher Milt Wilcox #39 of the Detroit Tigers throws apitch during the first inning of a game on September 7, 1983 against the Cleveland Indians at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. 830907-14 (Photo by: Ron Kuntz Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 7, 1983: Pitcher Milt Wilcox #39 of the Detroit Tigers throws apitch during the first inning of a game on September 7, 1983 against the Cleveland Indians at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. 830907-14 (Photo by: Ron Kuntz Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images) /

We are witnessing the Detroit Tigers emphasis their resources to build their rotation with draft picks. The nucleus of the 1984 rotation started their journey in 1979 in a similar fashion.

As we watch the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays duke it out in the World Series, I was reminded of how each team was built. The Dodgers pitching rotation is mainly built through the draft with picks ranging from the 1st in Kershaw to Gonsolin in the 9th round. The Detroit Tigers are working on building their rotation the same way in 2020 via the draft and are well underway.

We saw glimpses of the young promise with Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal in 2020. What is great about Skubal is he is the first left-handed starter drafted in the 9th round by Detroit to reach the majors. Only fellow lefty Scott Aldred, who was drafted in the 16th round in 1986, was drafted in a lower round.

So, you look at the key components of the 1984 Detroit  Tigers rotation. They all have one thing in common. They were drafted within a year of each other. General Manager Jim Campbell was able to leverage the farm system to help Sparky Anderson’s five-year plan to win a World Series come together. Let’s look at the 1979 rotation and how it evolved.

Dave Rozema: 4th round pick 1975 January Secondary Draft (Grand Rapids CC.)

Dave Rozema reached the majors quickly by the age of 20 by dominating in Low-A with Clinton and in Double-A with Montgomery.  Per his SABR bio, Tigers manager Ralph Houk declared that “Rozema is farther along at this point than Mark Fidrych was last year.” after his 1976 season in Montgomery.

He would make the roster in 1977 after Fidrych went down with a knee injury in spring training. Just like Mark, Rozema had a strong rookie campaign, going 15-7 with an ERA of 3.09 and threw 16 complete games. The Sporting News named him the top rookie pitcher in the AL.

However, in 1979, Rozema went down in June with shoulder issues. What is rather eye-popping is that in his first two seasons at the age of 20 and 21, he threw over 200 innings, which is rather underheard of in these times.

When Sparky took over in 1979, instead of putting Rozema at risk after his injury, he went down to Lakeland and worked on getting his arm strength back. Heading into the 80s, he was used out of the bullpen mainly but put up solid numbers.  While he was never the same pitcher he was in the first two seasons of his career, Rozema was able to contribute out of the bullpen and in spot starts.

Pat Underwood: 1st round pick 2nd overall 1976 (Kokomo High School, Indiana)

Pat Underwood was a left-handed pitcher with some bloodlines behind him. His brother, Tom, was drafted by the Phillies in 1972. Their father, John, was a player in the Phillies organization in the 1940s. In his senior season, Underwood threw four no-hitters. Think about that for a second. In this age of social media, he would have been on ESPN or on social media. Bill Lajoie, then the director of player personal, said this when they drafted Underwood.

“He’s the type of youngster who won’t let you cross the plate”

We all know the 1976 draft class is one of the best in Detroit Tigers history and it was kicked off by Underwood. A fun fact about Pat. He pitched game one of the most famous doubleheaders of all-time. The Disco Demolition game on June 12, 1979.

1979 was the most starts Underwood would have in his time in Detroit. From there until 1983, he bounced back and forth between Detroit and Triple-A Evansville. In June of 1983, he was traded for Reds infielder Wayne Krenchicki and was out of pro ball by 1984.

I inserted Pat Underwood in here as what Detroit was doing, which was put together a rotation to have a foundation for.  He came up through the ranks with the two of the next two pitchers.

Dan Petry: 4th round pick 1976 June draft (El Dorado High Schoo, California)

Petry earned the call up in July of 1979 and got off to a hot start, winning his first three starts earning the praise of Sparky Anderson.

“He has the intelligence, the body, the strength, and the poise….great talent is like a rosebud: When it opens, it opens extremely fast.”

Petry was a solid pitcher and he, along with Jack Morris from a span from 1982 until 1985, was one of the best one-two combos in the American League. In eleven seasons in Detroit, he went 119-93 with a career ERA of 3.84.

Jack Morris: 5th round pick 1976 June draft (BYU)

The Hall of Famer got the call up in early May of 1979 after being the last cut in camp by then manager Les Moss. Keep in mind, he was with the team in parts of 1977 and 1978 but 1979 would be the year he would come into his own and be the team’s ace for the next decade.

He went 17-7 in 1979 but what was more impressive is that he did that after spending the first two months in the minors. His 5.8 bWAR was fifth-best among starters in the AL that season.

The core is set

Even though Milt Wilcox was not drafted by the ballclub, he was signed in June of 1976 after spending time with Cincinnati and Cleveland. In 1977, he was on the same squad with Pat Underwood and Jack Morris in Evansville before getting the call-up in June of 77.

Wilcox would spend the next nine seasons along with Morris and Petry in the Tigers rotation. He would save the best season of his career in 1984, winning 17 games.

Sparky Anderson knew he had some arms to work with, more so than he did in Cincinnati. But he knew there would be some growing pains and stuck to his plan.

Whoever takes over as the next Detroit Tigers manager, it could be another case of history repeating itself with the abundance of pitching talent that is in the system. Let’s hope it can end in the same result as it did in 1984.